The NDP responds on the Office of Religious Freedom

It’s rare to get a response from a politician when you send them an email. It’s even rarer to get anything more than a form letter.

But I’ve never seen anything where an MP from across the country takes the time to read my concerns in their entirety and responds in kind to each point.

Last week, I mentioned that the NDP are still chasing down leads on the Office of Religious Freedom and after writing the post, I sent an email to Hélène Laverdière, NDP MP for Laurier – Ste-Marie, and Official Opposition Critic for Foreign Affairs. My email and her eloquent and detailed response are below the fold.


Dear Hélène Laverdière,

I was glad to read that you have continued to make inquiries into the Harper Conservative’s Office of Religious Freedoms. It concerns me that the government continues to stonewall any attempts to be held accountable and I want to strongly encourage you to continue your investigations.

While I, the NDP, and most Canadians, are strongly committed to human rights, including religious freedoms, this office has raised much scepticism over its secrecy. Many like myself are also worried that this office will be used to push a narrow religious ideology into Canada’s foreign policy and will threaten our implicit separation of church and state. We also see this office as more likely to promote freedom of religion while ignoring the equally important concept of freedom from religion. This concern is highlighted by the fact that no secular voices seem to have been included in the discussions around this office.

So again, I urge you to continue your investigation, and also question whether non-religious, secular humanist, and other secular viewpoints have been or will be included in discussions around this office.

Sincerely,

Ian Bushfield

Her response:

Dear Ian Bushfield,

Thank you for your correspondence regarding the establishment of an Office of Religious Freedom by the Harper Conservatives. As you noted in your email, the response I received recently from the government to my question on the Order Paper regarding the Office of Religious Freedom was wholly unsatisfactory.

Like you, I have concerns about the mandate, structure, and purpose of this office. New Democrats believe that Canada does and must continue to play an important role internationally in promoting the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. At the same time, we believe the question of religious freedom has to be understood within the broader context of freedoms and fundamental rights.

Aside from its narrow focus, concerns have surfaced around the consultation process during the development of this Office. We understand from media reports that faith leaders consulted on this initiative were invited primarily from Western religions, with the near-exclusion of representatives from Eastern religions. There are also practical concerns that the mandate of the Office is ill-defined, which may lead to difficulties in implementing this initiative within a broader departmental framework.

New Democrats would rather see the Canadian government focus on the important areas of institution-building, democracy promotion, and human rights. In the 2008 Speech from the Throne, the Harper government pledged to create “a new, non-partisan democracy promotion agency … to support the peaceful transition to democracy in repressive countries and help emerging democracies build strong institutions.” This initiative could have been an important way to share Canadian expertise on human rights, transparency and the rule of law with emerging democracies – and, in turn, ensure religious freedoms. It might have been used as a key part of Canada’s reaction to the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, the Conservatives broke their promise to establish this agency, and Canada lost an opportunity to provide international leadership in helping these emerging democracies.

The NDP’s position is reflected in comments made by Jinny Sims, our Deputy Foreign Affairs Critic and Critic for International Cooperation, during a debate in the House of Commons in October 2011. As Ms. Sims said on October 27th in the House, “I am not sure spending $5 million on another office would actually get us where we need to go. I would like to see those resources put toward a non-partisan agency that would promote democracy. The NDP and I are very committed to religious freedom. There is no magic agency that is going to fix this.” (Ms. Sims’ comments can be found here)

Mr. Bushfield, thank you also for raising an important point about the inclusion of secular voices. We will be sure to consider this as we continue to monitor this issue over the coming months. I want to assure you that we will continue to encourage the Canadian government to focus on the more important international issues, rather than those that are politically expedient for the Conservative Party.

Sincerely,

Hélène Laverdière
MP, Laurier – Ste-Marie
Official Opposition Critic for Foreign Affairs

I emphasized the bit that made me happiest in there. Feel free to add your voice in support of uncovering the motivations behind this Office by emailing Helene.Laverdiere.A2@parl.gc.ca

The NDP leadership convention kicks off tomorrow (early in the morning out here on the left West coast), so I’ll either be blogging or Tweeting the action as it happens. Then on Saturday, I’ll be joining Vancouver Point-Grey New Democrats at the Sunshine Grill in Kitsilano for brunch and to vote and watch the results live. Of course because the first round will be announced at 7 AM, we will be voting for the first 2 rounds before meeting there at 10 AM.

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